Politics and threatened litigation are replacing what is left of the water in the Colorado River as the seven basin states that rely on the West’s largest river try to reach an agreement to cut flows so power generation can continue at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. The directive to find some sort of definitive plan for dam operations by reducing flows was issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is tasked with making decisions to prop up the river that has been decimated by drought and over diversion through the years. The proposals do not change any of the states’ water allocations, for now, or affect any existing water rights. The plans will ultimately become part of a more comprehensive effort being worked on by the federal agency.
It is more than a heavy lift for a river that was divided up under a compact forged more than 100 years ago in a remote location in New Mexico and subsequently shaped by regulations, court decisions and compacts that all coalesced into what is now known as the “Law of the River.”
“Instead of bending over backwards to prop up Lake Powell, officials should be making plans to save Lake Mead and utilize Glen Canyon as a backup facility,” said Eric Balken, executive director of Glen Canyon Institute. “There’s just not enough water to save both reservoirs, and Mead is more vital to the basin.”
The institute has long advocated for the draining of Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir behind Lake Mead.
On Monday, six of the states sharing the Colorado River — California later detailed its own plan — submitted what they described as a Consensus Based Modeling Alternative to the reclamation bureau. While not a formal agreement, they say it provides a step toward helping the federal agency as it crafts an environmental review going forward.
Among other things, the alternative details:
Additional combined reductions of 250,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,030 feet and below.
Additional combined reductions of 200,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,020 feet and below, as well as additional reductions necessary to protect Lake Mead elevation of 1,000 feet.
Those potential reductions are designed to keep Lake Mead’s Hoover Dam in operation.
GEM is an interactive web-based decision support system that allows users to locate areas with high suitability for clean power generation and potential energy transmission corridors in the United States. Browse and download data layers, or create a custom suitability model to identify areas for energy development.
Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.
“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”
One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir…The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year…Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks.
“The reason [The Upper Colorado River Commision’s] five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The dam’s innards are a time capsule of 1960s engineering. Bolts as thick as a forearm hold together the hulking metal casing for hydroelectric generators. Here, the Colorado River surges through turbines, producing power for about 5 million people across seven states. Now, the Colorado River is on the decline, and the dam faces threats that could soon render it useless after decades as a symbol of American engineering achievement. In a room that evokes the inside of a submarine, Bob Martin opened a heavy door to reveal one of those turbines. A gleaming silver cylinder whirred along inside.
“This is all original,” he said. “This is like pulling your grandpa’s 1964 Cadillac out of the garage and it’s in the same condition it was in 1964. That’s the world class maintenance that we’ve done – generations have done – at Glen Canyon.”
Below the hydropower intake is the pipe which allows water to pass from Lake Powell to the river on the other side. Water levels could conceivably drop below that, too. At that point, the only pass-through would be a set of four rarely-used backup tubes near the bottom of the concrete. Those tubes, known as the “river outlet works,” were originally meant to be a failsafe pr to pass water in high flow years, and aren’t wide enough to carry the legally required amount of water from one side to the other. A century-old agreement mandates that the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico must deliver a specific amount of water downstream to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada each year. The bulk of that water starts as high-mountain snow in the Rockies. Because winter snowpack varies widely year to year, the Upper Basin states resolved to add some insurance in the form of Lake Powell. Since the 1960s, it has served as a way to bank excess during wet years, and ensure enough would flow to the Lower Basin during dry years.
The first sign of serious trouble for the drought-strickenAmerican Southwest could be a whirlpool. It could happen if the surface of Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir along the Colorado River that’s already a quarter of its former size, drops another 38 feet down the concrete face of the 710-footGlen Canyon Dam here. At that point, the surface would be approaching the tops of eightunderwater openings that allow river water to pass through the hydroelectric dam. The normally placid Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, could suddenly transform into something resembling a funnel, with water circling the openings,the dam’s operators say. If that happens,the massive turbines that generate electricity for 4.5 million people would have to shut down — after nearly 60 years of use —or risk destruction from air bubbles. The only outlet for Colorado River water from the damwould then be a set of smaller, deeper and rarely used bypass tubes with a far more limited ability to pass water downstream to the Grand Canyon and the cities and farms in Arizona, Nevada and California. Such an outcome — known as a “minimum power pool” — was once unfathomable here. Now, the federal government projects that day could come as soon as July.
Worse, officials warn, is the remote possibility of an even more catastrophic event. That is if the water level falls all the way to the lowest holes, so only small amounts could pass through the dam. Such a scenario — called “dead pool” — would transform Glen Canyon Dam from something that regulates an artery of national importance into a hulking concrete plug corking the Colorado River. Anxiety about such outcomes has worsened this year as a long-running drought has intensified in the Southwest. Reservoirs and groundwater supplies across the region have fallen dramatically, and states and cities have faced restrictions on water use amid dwindling supplies. The Colorado River, which serves roughly 1 in 10 Americans, is the region’s most important waterway.
On the way to such dire outcomes at Lake Powell — which federal officials have begun both planning for and working aggressively to avoid — scientists and dam operators say water temperatures in the Grand Canyon would hit a roller coaster, going frigid overnight and then heating up again, throwing the iconic ecosystem into turmoil. Lake Powell’s surface has already fallen 170 feet. Lucrative industries that attract visitors from around the world — the rainbow trout fishery above Lees Ferry, rafting trips through the Grand Canyon — would be threatened. And eventually the only water escaping to the Colorado River basin’s southern states and Mexico could be what flows into Lake Powell from the north and sloshes over the lip of the dam’s lowest holes.
The Bureau of Reclamation folks haven’t posted the slides yet from last week’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement briefings. In the meantime, some of us in the Colorado River nerd world have been passing around our screenshotted copies like some sort of precious mimeographed ’60s ‘zine.
It was a remarkable affair.
Buried in the tables and graphs was a sobering message: If we are to take climate change seriously, we need to be prepared for the possibility of:
driving Lake Mead to “dead pool” in order to protect the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam
driving Lake Powell below the critical power pool threshold, where Reclamation is forced to use Glen Canyon Dam’s dicey outlet works, in order to protect Lake Mead from reaching dead pool
releases from Lake Mead of as low as 3.8 million acre feet in a single near future year – a ~5 million acre foot reduction from current levels
Lake Powell releases dropping below the 10 year-by-75 million acre foot benchmark set by the Colorado River Compact. Not merely the 10×82.5 maf number that includes the Upper Basin’s share of the U.S. Mexican treaty obligation. Below 10x75maf.
To be clear, Reclamation is not projecting those numbers. Rather, this is the no-holds-barred reality check being offered by Reclamation’s technical team of a plausible scenario for which we need to be prepared.
Given the context in which these numbers are being offered – new operating rules under a revised version of the 2007 Interim Guidelines – it seems clear where this is headed.
First and foremost, if we have a wet year this year, we need to hold water back now. I can imagine, for example, a new rule that constrains releases from Glen Canyon Dam indexed to inflows – perhaps “don’t release any more water from Glen this year than last year’s unregulated inflow”. If my hypothetical rule takes evaporation into account, that would mean something around a 6maf Powell release in 2023.
One of the flaws we can now clearly see in the ’07 guidelines is that they were keyed to reservoir elevations rather than the actual flow of the river, in a way that allowed us to drain Mead and Powell. We have a chance for a tweak to save us from the worst of that over the next few years. [ed. emphasis mine]
LOWER BASIN USE
Cutting Powell’s releases, as we must do, quickly crashes Lake Mead, pushing it well down into the ’07 guidelines shortage tiers. But the model runs presented by reclamation show those current shortage tiers won’t be enough.
So a new set of rules, to get us through the next few years, has to offer up much deeper Lower Basin cuts than the current rules in the ’07 guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan. It also seems clear, after staring at Reclamation’s slides from last week’s briefing, that we need the cuts to kick in sooner, at higher Mead levels, if we are to be prepared for the possibilities contemplated in the briefing. I’m intrigued by a “double DCP” notion that’s been kicking around the basin community, because it’s based on ratios for shortages among the Lower Basin states that have already been negotiated.
My back-of-the-envelope look at those numbers suggests to me that Double DCP at higher Mead elevations might be going a little harsh on Arizona and easy on California. Dunno. Thinking about equities, “present perfected rights”, Tribal water, environmental flows, and my friends in the Lower Basin gives me a headache.
But I’ve got plenty of aspirin and 16 days until Interior’s deadline for comments, so perhaps I’ll make it.
As The Gazette’s report reminded us, our state’s defining river today is in greater peril than it has been at any time in history amid the West’s explosive growth and a 23-year drought that has limited the river’s flows year after year…conservation efforts alone seem like half-measures that inevitably lead to diminishing returns. As we asked here recently, what if we started putting more water into the Colorado River Basin instead of ratcheting down ever further how much is taken out of it? Increase supply, in other words, instead of futilely trying to curb demand. Some are taking up that challenge.
Arizona’s state government is laying plans with Mexico for a jointly developed desalination plant that would turn seawater into fresh water along the Arizona-Mexico border, where the Colorado River empties into the Sea of Cortez. That has the potential to lower water use downstream and leave more up river in Upper Basin states. There’s also great potential in new technology enabling water reuse, which is not so much a form of conservation as it is turning old water into new. Israel recycles and reuses nearly 90% of its water and Spain over 30%, a water expert recently wrote in a Gazette commentary.
As Colorado River water users prepare to meet in Las Vegas next month, the reality they face is one of growing uncertainty with few simple options left on the negotiating table. The math is well understood: There are more demands for the river than there is water coming into its reservoirs.
But cutting back at the scale necessary — and on a voluntary basis — has proven painstakingly difficult this year as top officials from across the Colorado River watershed have failed to reach a settlement. If the cuts are inevitable based on physical realities, questions remain about what form they will take. Will they be voluntary? Mandatory? Both? And how would they be enforced?
The federal government is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: On the one hand, it is seeking to fund voluntary conservation programs, paying irrigators to forgo water. But federal officials are also analyzing mandatory cutbacks if a negotiated deal cannot be reached among water users.
How the two strategies will work together — and in light of a century of contracts, agreements and guidelines that govern the river — remains a lingering question as water managers prepare for a conference in Las Vegas next month. The conference, hosted by the Colorado River Water Users Association, or CRWUA, brings together water officials, policymakers and interest groups from across the basin, which includes seven U.S. states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico.
The conference will cap a dizzying year of crisis on a river beset with long-term challenges and inequities weaved into its foundational rules. In June, as negotiators were looking at reworking the operating rules on the Colorado River (set to expire in 2026), the federal government called on water users to agree on substantial short-term cuts that would stave off disastrous declines in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s largest reservoirs. Yet with such deep cuts needed, negotiators failed to develop a binding agreement after an August 15 deadline came and went.
“The level of uncertainty is increasing,” Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said. “I haven’t seen anything that’s got the pendulum to stop swinging in the increasing direction and maybe at least stop — and maybe start going the other way.”
Since 1922, the Colorado River Compact has guided development in the watershed. On top of that foundational document are a century of treaties, federal laws and agreements dictating how the river and shortages are apportioned. But those deals have not shielded those reliant on the river, which serves 40 million people in the Southwest, from low reservoirs and mounting risk.
Together, the many reservoirs that store water for Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico, are 33 percent full. Lake Mead, held back by the Hoover Dam and the reservoir from which the Las Vegas Valley draws 90 percent of its drinking water, is 28 percent full. Upstream at another large reservoir, Lake Powell, low water has exposed submerged landscapes. It is 25 percent full.
Modeling by federal water experts forecast both Lake Mead and Lake Powell continuing to drop below critical levels. Without changes in water use, Lake Mead, over the next two years, could drop below the threshold triggering deeper water shortages. And Lake Powell could drop below its minimum power pool, the point at which water is so low the dam cannot generate electricity.
In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on all water users and all sectors on the Colorado River to come together with a plan that would cut a huge amount of water — about 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — as a measure to stabilize the two reservoirs (an acre-foot is enough water to roughly fill a football field to a depth of one foot).
That put most of the onus on the Lower Colorado River Basin, the states downstream of Lake Powell (Arizona, California and Nevada), where most of the water is consumed in cities, farms, businesses and lost to evaporation. Of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River, Nevada has the smallest apportionment, with entitlements to only 1.8 percent of all the water that’s been allocated. Still, Las Vegas is also heavily dependent on the river as a long-term water supply.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a recent interview that Nevada faces less physical risk than water users downstream of Lake Mead. The agency recently completed construction of a low-level intake and pumping station that allows it to draw water out of Lake Mead, even in the most extreme water-shortage scenarios. Still, the interstate negotiations are highly consequential for shaping what future cuts might look like.
“So our risk really has to be evaluated in terms of how big of a reduction we could face and what are our plans for dealing with that,” he said. “I think we have the ability to adapt to anything that might come our way… We’re not going to start publicly negotiating against ourselves about how low we think our reduction might be, but we do internal modeling and look at additional steps we can take in conservation, and I think we’re at a pretty good place to take care of ourselves.”
With no agreement in place to cut close to 2 million acre-feet, the federal government has been stepping in. Earlier this year, the federal government injected an infusion of cash — $4 billion — into managing the river, a portion of which was set aside for conservation. In October, federal water managers began soliciting proposals to pay irrigators $330 to $400 for each acre-foot of water they conserved (federal officials said they would also accept different pricing proposals).
The proposals for voluntary and compensated conservation closed last week. California said it would commit to cutting 400,000 acre-feet of water (it is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet), a mix of water from irrigation districts and through the primary municipal provider for Southern California.
“This isn’t the grand solution or all that California is going to do as we look to right sizing water usage,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary. “But our take was we’re on borrowed time so let’s step up and do as much as we can do collectively, voluntarily.”
In Arizona, the Gila River Indian Community announced that it would commit to forgo 125,000 acre-feet of water, according to The Arizona Republic. Native American tribes hold some of the oldest and most valuable rights to the Colorado River, but were excluded from the compact, one of the many fundamental injustices embedded into the framework of the river’s operating rules. At the same time some Native American tribes are stepping up to help conserve water, many are still fighting for their water rights, and face systemic barriers in putting the water to use.
California uses the majority of the water in the Lower Basin, followed by Arizona (it is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet). But a federal law gave California a priority to water relative to the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal running from the river through the Phoenix and Tucson areas. In theory, that means that in times of severe shortage California can use all its water before the canal gets any. Arizona says that’s not an equitable solution, and the law is not as clear-cut.
As a result of the differing priorities to water, Arizona has already made significant cuts to its water use in past years, including through the Drought Contingency Plan, while California has not. Buschatzke said he wanted to see the state commit to further cuts, closer to the 525,000 acre-feet in additional cuts that Arizona said it had put on the negotiating table this summer.
“I think California’s number should be closer to whatever Arizona has to do,” he said.
How the commitments to conserve water translates into actualwater savings is another issue that water managers are grappling with. It’s one thing to make a commitment. It’s another thing to get individual irrigators to cut back as farmers place water orders and prepare for the growing season. Many point to the 500+ Plan as an example. It was a voluntary program, signed by the states at the Las Vegas conference last year, and pledged to save 500,000 acre-feet of water.
“The 500 Plus plan existed in 2022,” said Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s deputy general manager. “We just didn’t have enough interest in voluntarily participating.”
Crowfoot said he is “confident” that California water users can meet the conservation goal, but he recognizes “that there’s work to do to actually turn that commitment into wet water.”
Voluntary programs are not the only action that water users might expect to see within the next year. There remains a second approach on the table that could result in reductions for states across the basin. Last month, federal water managers initiated a formal process to conduct an environmental analysis that could result in mandatory water use reductions in the Lower Basin.
The federal government is evaluating a number of options, including holding back water in Lake Powell, redefining existing cuts and accounting for the significant amount of water that is lost to evaporation and leaky infrastructure. According to an analysis from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, accounting for evaporation and other losses could save about 1.5 million acre-feet.
Accounting for conservation could meet challenges. Some users said their legal priority to water should be factored into any discussion about evaporation. Otherwise, as JB Hamby, a board member for the Imperial Irrigation District (with the river’s largest single allocation) argues, “it’s an attempt to redistribute shortages from junior users to senior primarily agricultural users.” (In Western water law, those with newer “junior” rights are typically cut first in times of drought).
Hamby said the district was submitting a proposal to cut its use by about 250,000 acre-feet for a negotiated price, but he suggested uniform accounting for evaporation loss was a non-starter.
“The shortage,” Hamby said, “was not created by those who were there first, and there was still water gushing into the Sea of Cortez.” Instead, he said it should fall on more recent water uses.
But Buschatzke said his opinion is that everyone relies on infrastructure where evaporation is occurring, regardless of their priority. As such, all users have a responsibility in accounting for it in their water budgets. Still, he conceded that not all Arizona water users share this opinion.
“If you are using Colorado River water…, you own a piece of that evaporation loss,” he said.
Entsminger echoed this, saying that priority should not have anything to do with it. While there has been little overall progress on a negotiated approach, Entsminger pointed to one sign that parties, with varying interests, can still work collaboratively in the Colorado River Basin.
Last week, 30 municipal water providers from across the watershed signed a memorandum of understanding that pledged to increase water conservation and remove non-functional turf. For the larger cuts, Entsminger said that a consensus-based deal is still his preferred outcome.
“I still think it should be the path forward because your entire universe of options is contained within negotiation, litigation or legislation, and I’m not a fan of litigation or legislation,” he said.
Click the link to read the release on the USGS website (Jason Dunham):
The importance of thermal refuges in a rapidly warming world is particularly evident for migratory species, where individuals encounter a wide range of conditions throughout their lives. In this study, we used a spatially explicit, individual-based simulation model to evaluate the buffering potential of cold-water thermal refuges for anadromous salmon and trout (Oncorhynchus spp.) migrating upstream through a warm river corridor that can expose individuals to physiologically stressful temperatures. We considered upstream migration in relation to migratory phenotypes that were defined in terms of migration timing, spawn timing, swim speed, and use of cold-water thermal refuges. Individuals with different migratory phenotypes migrated upstream through riverine corridors with variable availability of cold-water thermal refuges and mainstem temperatures. Use of cold-water refuges (CWRs) decreased accumulated sublethal exposures to physiologically stressful temperatures when measured in degree-days above 20, 21, and 22°C. The availability of CWRs was an order of magnitude more effective in lowering accumulated sublethal exposures under current and future mainstem temperatures for summer steelhead than fall Chinook Salmon. We considered two emergent model outcomes, survival and percent of available energy used, in relation to thermal heterogeneity and migratory phenotype. Mean percent energy loss attributed to future warmer mainstem temperatures was at least two times larger than the difference in energy used in simulations without CWRs for steelhead and salmon. We also found that loss of CWRs reduced the diversity of energy-conserving migratory phenotypes when we examined the variability in entry timing and travel time outside of CWRs in relation to energy loss. Energy-conserving phenotypic space contracted by 7%–23% when CWRs were unavailable under the current thermal regime. Our simulations suggest that, while CWRs do not entirely mitigate for stressful thermal exposures in mainstem rivers, these features are important for maintaining a diversity of migration phenotypes. Our study suggests that the maintenance of diverse portfolios of migratory phenotypes and cool- and cold-water refuges might be added to the suite of policies and management actions presently being deployed to improve the likelihood of Pacific salmonid persistence into a future characterized by climate change.
What is hydroelectric energy and how does it work? – Luca, age 13, Boston, Massachusetts
If you’ve ever observed a river rushing down a mountain or played in the waves at the beach, you’ve felt that moving water contains a lot of energy. A river can push you and your kayak downstream, sometimes very quickly, and waves crashing into you at the beach can knock you back, or even knock you over.
The energy in these moving waters comes from gravity. As part of the Earth’s water cycle, water evaporates from the Earth’s surface or is released from plants. When the released water vapor is carried to cooler, higher altitudes like mountainous regions, it condenses into cloud droplets. When these cloud droplets become big enough, they fall from the sky as precipitation, either as a liquid (rain) or, if it is cold enough, as a solid (snow). Over land, precipitation tends to fall on high altitude areas at first.
The pull of gravity causes the water to flow. If the water falls as rain, some of it flows downhill into natural channels and becomes rivers. If the water falls as snow, it will slowly melt into water as temperatures warm and follow the same paths. The rivers that form consist of water from precipitation starting at high altitudes and flowing down the steep slopes of mountains.
Converting flowing water to electricity
Hydropower facilities capture the energy in flowing water by using a device called a turbine. As water runs over the blades of a turbine – kind of like a giant pinwheel – they spin. This spinning turbine is connected to a shaft that spins inside a device called a generator, which uses an effect called induction to convert energy in the spinning shaft to electricity.
There are two main kinds of hydropower facilities. The first kind is called a “run-of-the-river” hydropower facility. These facilities consist of a channel to divert water flow from a river to a turbine. The electricity production from the turbine follows the timing of the river flow. When a river is running full with lots of spring meltwater, it means the turbine can produce more electricity. Later in the summer, when the river flow decreases, so does the turbine’s electricity production. These facilities are typically small and simple to construct, but there is limited ability to control their output.
The second kind is called a “reservoir” or “dam” hydropower facility. These facilities use a dam to hold back the flow of a river and create an artificial lake behind the dam. Hydropower dams have intakes that control how much water flows through passages inside the dam. Turbines at the bottom of these passages convert the flowing water into electricity.
To produce electricity, the dam operator releases water from the artificial lake. This water speeds up as it falls down from the intakes near the top of the dam to the turbines near the bottom. The water that exits the turbines is released back into the river downstream. These reservoir hydropower facilities are usually large and can affect river habitats, but they can also produce a lot of electricity in a controllable manner.
The future of hydropower
Hydropower depends on the availability of water in flowing rivers. As climate change affects the water cycle, some regions may have less precipitation and consequently less hydropower generation.
Also, making electricity isn’t the only thing dam operators have to think about when they decide how much water to let through. They have to make sure to keep some water behind the dam for people to use and let enough water through to preserve the river habitat below the dam.
Hydropower can also play a role in limiting climate change because it is a form of renewable electricity. Hydropower facilities can increase and decrease their electricity production to fill in gaps in wind and solar generation.
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Arizona’s water leaders on Friday, November 4, 2022, outlined the state of negotiations over delivery cutbacks to stabilize the Colorado River system.
Even as the days tick ever closer to the start of the 2023 water year, they reported, the Colorado River States and the Department of the Interior appear to have made scant progress toward an outcome that would leave between the 2-4 million acre-feet that the system needs to keep from descending to unstable levels.
Speaking about the on-going discussions among the states about conservation contributions, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke conceded that “there was no certainty that we would get to even 1 million acre-feet (MAF).”
Director Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke made their presentation to the Arizona Reconsultation Committee, the organization of water users and providers from across Arizona that helps develop an Arizona perspective on new long-term management guidelines for the Colorado River that are expected to go into effect before the end of 2026.
As a result of existing agreements, Arizona will leave 592,000 acre-feet of its 2.8 MAF allocation – 21 percent – in Lake Mead in 2023 to help keep the reservoir from descending to critical levels.
Including mandatory and voluntary contributions from a variety of in-state sources, Arizona will have left roughly 840,000 acre-feet in the troubled reservoir in 2022.
As reported by Buschatzke and Cooke, the states are struggling to come up with a plan to secure equitable voluntary commitments to conserve the additional 2-4 MAF.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton announced earlier this year that the system needed to conserve that stunning amount of water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to avoid potential catastrophe. The Bureau’s efforts since then have focused on winning voluntary contribution commitments from the states. The ARC co-chairs said the discussions have not proved fruitful thus far.
Buschatzke also described one of the more under-appreciated issues facing the Colorado River system: The ability of Glen Canyon Dam to funnel water downstream if water levels in Lake Powell descend below the eight power-producing intake valves.
Below those eight massive valves are just four “bypass tubes” that, comparatively, are “basically four garden hoses” compared to the eight intake valves.
Much of the discussion at the ARC meeting focused on one of the more controversial long-term options for dealing with chronic overuse of Colorado River water – creating a system that assesses users for system losses due to evaporation, seepage and other losses. Accounting for those losses, said Buschatzke, “will go a long way” toward getting to the 2-4 MAF needed to protect the system.
“Everyone… diverting water should own a piece of that evaporation and system loss,” said Buschatzke. [ed. emphasis mine]
The Director acknowledged that winning support for such an accounting among users and providers in Arizona, much less among the other states, “is not a certainty.”
“How do you live within a lesser river?” Colorado River Conservation District Manager Andy Mueller asked the roughly 400 people who filled the Montrose County Event Center’s indoor arena on Thursday for the West Slope Water Summit…
The Colorado River Compact divided the river’s water between Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming (Upper Basin) and California, Arizona and Nevada (Lower Basin), based on 17.5 million acre-feet. Under a treaty, Mexico receives Colorado River water as well, 1.5 million acre-feet. The amount exists on paper; however, the running average is only 15 million acre-feet (7.5 million acre-feet per basin). Mueller reports the last 10 years’ average has been 12.6 million acre-feet, with more than 14 million acre-feet in use, which has drained down once brimming reservoirs. Add to that temperature increases that dry out the soils, which in turn suck up a fair amount of snowfall precipitation; transportive losses; evaporative losses, plus federal pressure to conserve even more water, and the reality is: water consumption has to be cut. Although the ongoing argument between the Upper and Lower Basins tends to center on who has already been cut too deeply and who has not, it doesn’t change the hotter, drier climate conditions.
“Because of that, we should understand our water uses have to be reduced as well,” Mueller said, after detailing the history of the Colorado River Compact, uses, and political disputes over the river’s water.
Mueller said although the Upper Basin has consistently lived within its hydrology while meeting its compact obligations to send water downstream, and the Lower Basin hasn’t, everyone must be more innovative in bringing solutions to protect agriculture, communities, and the attendant economies.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):
Lawmakers will seek $500,000 to study water lost from canals in the Green and Little Snake River basins to ensure Wyoming is accurately credited for conservation when it chooses or is forced to close irrigation systems in the troubled Colorado River Basin.
The study could help Wyoming limit reductions in water diversion as seven Western states and Mexico wrangle with an over-allocated and dwindling supply in the drainage. Members of the Legislature’s Joint Select Water Committee voted to draft a measure to seek the money from the general fund when the legislative session commences early next year.
“I could see [a conveyance loss study] very easily reaching $500,000,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office told lawmakers Wednesday. State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said his “mind was right at $500,000 for this,” but that “it could be a lot more.
“I do think that this is a really good start,” he said.
One hundred years after the signing of the Colorado River Compact, water managers cannot accurately measure what’s used and have not agreed on how to resolve conflicting views on rights to use what water there is.
The amount of incidental seepage and phreatophytic losses — canal-side, plant-used water — associated with irrigation is an “area of agriculture data collection that need[s] to be updated and verified,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation states in its 2022 Upper Colorado River Basin Consumptive Uses and Losses report.
The proposed Wyoming study could help the state claim that when it shuts off water to a field of crops, it is saving that crop’s consumption plus what’s lost in the conveyance system of canals and ditches that carry the flow from river to field.
By showing it saves more, Wyoming would cut off fewer users in a “curtailment” situation where water managers require conservation. The data could also better inform the purchase of temporary water rights transfers from one user to another.
“Understanding what that conveyance loss is,” Gebhart said, “could benefit the water users in our state.”
Conveyance loss is significant in Wyoming’s Green River Basin, one lawmaker told the committee.
“We know in Sublette County that we have some canals that are over 20 miles long that go through a glacial till and alluvium that, anecdotally we’ve heard, they lose up to 80%,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) told the committee. Irrigators estimated losses in a survey conducted by the Water Development Office, but none has reported losses as high as 80%; the statewide average is 24%.
A contractor would lay out the groundwork for the study starting next spring, identifying perhaps eight sites and 50 miles of canals in the Green and Little Snake River drainages that could be monitored. Investigators would install water-pressure sensors in canals to record water-level fluctuations through a season.
Once in place, consultants would measure and record flows and pressures in the 2024 irrigation season. Mead of the WWDO described how the survey would work.
Investigators would be “going out there four or five, six times to actually get measurements on the canal at four or five or six different spots down, say, a 15-mile section,” he said.
The results would show, for example, the difference in canal seepage at the beginning of an irrigation season when the ground is drier compared to seepage in mid-summer when the canal has been flowing and “things are wetted up and primed,” Mead said.
Engineer Gebhart distinguished between two categories of conveyance losses — consumptive loss and seepage — and whether Wyoming could claim credit for staunching either.
Consumptive loss is the amount consumed by ditch-side plants and trees, the amount lost to evaporation, plus that which leaks into an aquifer “that does not return back to the [Colorado River] system,” he said.
Gebhart defined the second category — seepage loss — as leakage that returns to the system. “It may be delayed, but it does return back to a stream,” he said.
As Wyoming calculates what’s consumptively used — and what it can save if that consumptive use is taken off-line — it might not be credited for reducing some associated seepage.
“Seepage [that] returns to the system … that is not considered a consumptive use,” Gebhart said. “I would say a majority of ditch loss is lost to seepage.”
Results from the study would be ready in late 2024 or in 2025, according to a scenario painted by Mead.
Wyoming doesn’t expect to face curtailment — when it might be forced to shut down users — until 2028, if drought continues. Wyoming and its sister states in the Upper Division or upper basin — Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — would face mandatory cuts if the Lee Ferry gauging station just below Lake Powell shows a flow of less than 75 million acre-feet in the previous 10 years.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, “[t]he States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted” below that level. The upper basin encompasses about 45% of the drainage area but produces 92% of the runoff.
Colorado River laws apportion Wyoming rights to 14% of the upper basin’s water, officials say. They believe upper basin states are not yet at the critical “75/10” metric where reductions are necessary.
“We’re currently about 85 million acre-feet,” Gebhart said, referring to the previous 10 years. “So we’ve got a little buffer.”
“We’ve blown through the hydrology, we’ve used most of the storage in the Colorado River Basin,” Hicks said. “And now … the director of the Bureau of Reclamation, [is] looking for somewhere between 2 [million] and 4 million acre-feet of reductions in the Colorado.”
The original estimate was 15 million acre-feet were in the system annually, but that water, “it doesn’t exist,” Hicks said. In the last decade, it’s averaged 12 million acre-feet or less, he said. One water administrator in Colorado has said experts tell water managers to plan for 9 million acre-feet a year as a worst-case scenario.
Municipalities and industry — usually holding inferior, junior water rights and so the first to face curtailment — could be looking for water. In Wyoming, agriculture holds 80% of the water rights, Hicks said, and could be approached to sell through a temporary-transfer system or some other arrangement.
“That’s the water bank that you’re looking at,” Hicks said of agriculture.
“At some point in time, we’re gonna have to recognize that there’s not 15 million acre-feet to be divided up,” he said. “That’s really the issue. This is why all the states are lawyering up.”
Wyoming is preparing for negotiations, measurements, debates and possibly fights over water rights. In the last year, the state has added a Colorado-River staffer to the state engineer’s office and also the attorney general’s office, Hicks told the committee.
As collaborative work continues across the Colorado River Basin to address the ongoing drought crisis, the Department of the Interior today announced expedited steps to prepare new measures that, based on current and projected hydrologic conditions, are needed to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. To address the serious operational realities facing the System, the Bureau of Reclamation is initiating an expedited, supplemental process to revise the current interim operating guidelines for the operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams in 2023 and 2024 in order to provide additional alternatives and measures needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the Basin.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Revising the current interim operating guidelines for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams represents one of many critical Departmental efforts underway to better protect the System in light of rapidly changing conditions in the Basin.”
Reclamation will publish a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), which will include proposed alternatives to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision associated with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The 2007 Interim Guidelines provide operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, including provisions designed to provide a greater degree of certainty to water users about timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin States, and additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system.
The NOI outlines that, in order to ensure that Glen Canyon Dam continues to operate under its intended design, Reclamation may need to modify current operations and reduce Glen Canyon Dam downstream releases, thereby impacting downstream riparian areas and reservoir elevations at Lake Mead. Additionally, in order to protect Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety, Reclamation may need to also modify current operations and reduce Hoover Dam downstream releases.
“We are taking immediate steps now to revise the operating guidelines to protect the Colorado River System and stabilize rapidly declining reservoir storage elevations,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Today’s action brings new ideas and necessary measures to the table as we consider alternatives to revise operations to better protect Colorado River System in the near term while we also continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans that reflect the climate-driven realities facing the Colorado River Basin.”
As described in the NOI, this SEIS will analyze alternatives including:
Framework Agreement Alternative: This alternative would be developed as an additional consensus-based set of actions that would build on the existing framework for Colorado River Operations. This alternative would build on commitments and obligations developed by the Basin States, Tribes and non-governmental organizations as part of the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) Authorization Act.
Reservoir Operations Modification Alternative: This alternative would be developed by Reclamation as a set of actions and measures adopted pursuant to Secretarial authority under applicable federal law. This alternative would also consider how the Secretary’s authority could complement a consensus-based alternative that may not sufficiently mitigate current and projected risks to the Colorado River System reservoirs. [ed. emphasis mine]
No Action: The No Action Alternative will describe the continued implementation of existing agreements that control operations of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. These include the 2007 Interim Guidelines and agreements adopted pursuant to the 2019 DCP. Intensive ongoing efforts to achieve water conservation actions in the Basin are underway through a number of programs, including the recent Inflation Reduction Act. Implementation and effectiveness of these efforts will inform the assessment of existing operations and agreements.
The Department also recently announced new drought mitigation funding opportunities to provide reliable, sustainable and equitable water and power supplies across the Basin. A newly created Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, funded with an initial allocation through the Inflation Reduction Act, will help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. The Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.
The NOI announced today to address immediate challenges does not interfere with Reclamation’s separate process for determining post-2026 Colorado River Operations.
Members of the public interested in providing input on the SEIS can do so through December 20, 2022, per instructions in the FederalRegister that will be published in the coming days.
Click the link to read “Feds want the ability to cut back on Colorado River reservoir releases over the next two years” on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
On Friday, the Interior Department began the process of revising existing guidelines for water management in the Colorado River basin. The river, which supplies 40 million people across the Southwest, is strained by a supply-demand imbalance and will likely shrink further due to climate change. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams at those reservoirs, filed a Notice of Intent Friday to propose changes to water releases. An upcoming Environmental Impact Statement will contain the details of those changes. The Bureau’s plans will tweak river management rules drawn up in 2007 in response to declining reservoir levels at that time. Those rules, known as the “Interim Guidelines” were meant to last until 2025. These potential changes to water released from the dams will join a patchwork of temporary reductions and conservation agreements that have been deployed to pull the basin back from the brink of catastrophe. Ongoing dry conditions brought on by warming temperatures have worsened beyond the expectations of many water managers, and steady demand is sapping the shrinking supply. States that use water from the Colorado River are due to rewrite management guidelines by 2026, when the current set expires…
These tweaks are pitched as a means of making sure water can pass through Glen Canyon Dam normally. Dropping water levels in Lake Powell have threatened hydropower production at the dam, which supplies electricity to roughly 5 million people across seven nearby states. Lower levels mean lower power output, and if levels drop so low that air enters the hydroelectric turbines, they could be damaged.
Beyond hydropower worries, some have raised concern that water from Lake Powell may soon be unable to pass through rarely-used pipes in its dam at a sufficient rate, jeopardizing the flow of water to millions of people who depend on it downstream. The lowest set of pipes — which would serve as the only exit route for water once levels fall past 3,430 feet in elevation — are not big enough to carry sufficient water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico to satisfy their legal obligation. Lake Powell was at 3,529 feet at the end of September.
Lake Mead, which stores water for the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, is filled with water released from Lake Powell. Because of that, any changes at Lake Powell would be felt at Lake Mead and the section of Colorado River between the two, which primarily flows through Grand Canyon National Park. Reclamation says it may modify releases at the Hoover Dam, which holds back Lake Mead, “in order to protect Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety.”
Click the link to read “New push to shore up shrinking Colorado River could reduce water flow to California” on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
With water levels dropping at Lake Powell, the Interior Department said operators of Glen Canyon Dam may need to release less water, which would affect flows in the Grand Canyon and accelerate the decline of Lake Mead. In order to protect public health and safety and the integrity of the system, the department said releases from Hoover Dam may also need to be reduced — which would shrink the amounts of water flowing to California, Arizona and Mexico…
The Interior Department has the authority to step in and unilaterally impose larger cuts. But federal officials appear to be pushing for a consensus on shrinking the water take from the river rather than dictating reductions in ways that could further inflame tensions or lead to legal fights. This approach increases the pressure on the states to come up with a deal in the coming months or face federal intervention.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a news release. “At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it.”
Click the link to read “Feds start the clock on a plan that could deepen cuts on drought-stricken Colorado River” on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Here’s an excerpt:
The Interior Department and its dam managers at the Bureau of Reclamation said Friday they will complete an environmental review of options for keeping water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both of which in recent years have sped toward the point of losing hydropower production or even failing to flow through their respective dams. Reclamation already has reduced supplies to Arizona and Nevada based on operating guidelines approved in 2007. Those rules for shortage management have proved insufficient to halt plunging storage levels. They expire in 2026 and must be replaced by then, but the government’s announcement makes clear that emergency action is needed even sooner…
What happens to the reservoirs now also depends on how much snowpack the Rocky Mountains can pile up this winter to melt next spring. If the weather is especially poor, with flows less than half their long-term average over the next couple of years, the government’s projections now find worst-case scenarios that could dry up the river below Lake Mead before 2026, cutting off those who use the river in Arizona, California and Mexico. The Grand Canyon’s stretch of river is also at risk if Lake Powell continues to sink toward Glen Canyon Dam’s outlets.
“Reclamation is not going to let the states call its bluff any longer and realizes that the existing 2026 deadline is too far in the distance,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a conservation group.
Doling out cuts from the river is complicated by 100 years of law and regulation meant to set how much water each of seven states can take. Arizona typically gets about a third of its total supply from the river, but has had to reduce its 2.8 million-acre share by 512,000 acre-feet, and will lose 80,000 more next year under terms of the 2007 guidelines.
Click the link to read “New US plan could lead to federal action on Colorado River” on the Associated Press website (Felicia Fonseca and Kathleen Ronayne). Here’s an excerpt:
The public has until Dec. 20 to weigh in on three options that seek to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping so low they couldn’t produce power or provide the water that seven Western states, Mexico and tribes have relied on for decades. One of the options would allow the Interior Department’s U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to take unilateral action, as it threatened this summer when it asked states to come up with ways to significantly reduce their use beyond what they have already volunteered and were mandated to cut…
The announcement comes more than four months after Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told Congress that water use must be cut dramatically as drought and overuse tax the river — an essential supply of water for farmers, cities and tribes in the U.S. West, as well as Mexico. The seven states that tap the river failed to reach Touton’s August deadline and have been working ever since to reach a compromise. It now appears unlikely a grand deal will be reached. In the meantime, the bureau has offered up billions in federal money to pay farmers and cities to cut back. But Interior’s new action marks the first time it’s taking a clear step toward imposing its own, mandatory cuts. The agency anticipates changes to the conditions at which water shortages are declared in the river’s lower basin. Lake Mead and Lake Powell were about half full when the 2007 guidelines were approved and are now about one-quarter full.
George discusses the “Law of the River” and the notion that the river’s hydrology might be the real law of the river. Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):
For the past several posts, we’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact, commemorating its centennial this year. Nearly everything I have read about the Colorado River Compact in this centennial year – and it’s getting to be voluminous – speaks of it as the ‘foundation’ of ‘The Law of the River,’ an accumulation of legal and political documents accompanying the development of the Colorado River since the 1922 Compact.
I have a problem with calling the Compact the ‘foundation’ of the Law of the River – as though before the Compact was adopted, the River was lawless. That is not true. The real foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriations doctrine that all seven states (or territories) had embraced in the 19th century – an evolving body of ‘common law’ that is the foundational law of all modern water development in the arid American West.
There is much to appreciate in the appropriations doctrine, which we explored a month or so ago. It democratically only allows the appropriation of the amount of water an appropriator(s) can beneficially put to use, to prevent big money speculation. It protects existing ‘senior’ downstream users from being dried up by new upstream ‘junior’ users. Among other virtues, it has shown flexibility in opening up to incorporate new uses like recreation and the environment.
But the appropriations doctrine also evolved as a powerful engine for growth. Its basic ‘first in time, first in right’ promise of perpetual secure use rewards those who get there first, regardless of what they do so long as it can be construed as economically beneficial, which we now know covers a multitude of sins against both nature and human nature. And ‘judicial expansions’ to the basic law really increased its potential for nurturing growth. The abstract ‘right to use water’ for some specific decreed purpose came to be a property that could be bought and sold like land itself – along with its seniority. The water whose use was purchased could be moved anywhere from its natural watershed with a simple change of purpose, enabling cities with limiting natural water supplies but concentrated economic power to accumulate water from great distances – including water they were not yet ready to use, exempting their ‘prudence’ from the anti-speculation law.
The appropriations doctrine is thus like the reactor in a nuclear power plant, an explosively powerful energy. What makes a nuclear power plant functional is a whole set of systems designed to contain, control, slow down, cool down and spread that explosive energy – turn it from a potentially destructive force to beneficial use.
The Compact commission came together 100 years ago to construct exactly that kind of control mechanism around the appropriation doctrine. Appropriation law based on seniority had emerged as a way of working out local problems; but as the land filled up, the logic of the law seemed to decree that prior appropriations would have to be honored across shared watershed boundaries – and then across state boundaries, in a stream shared among states. That was in fact being tested in the early 1920s in the U.S. Supreme Court, arbiter of interstate conflicts: the state of Wyoming sued the state of Colorado, on behalf of some Laramie River irrigators with decreed water in Wyoming that Colorado diverters upstream were threatening to cut off.
Colorado water attorney Delph Carpenter had argued, in Wyoming v. Colorado, that the users in every state had the right to develop as much water as they could under their own law, and there would still be plenty to flow to downstream states. But Carpenter assumed he would lose that one, that the court would decree that the states would have to honor each other’s appropriations (which it did in June 1922), and he worried that the growth dynamic of the appropriation doctrine would then launch a ‘seven-state horserace’ with each state trying to appropriate as much water as possible as quickly as possible – with fastest-growing California half a lap ahead at the start, and the courts would be clogged with Wyoming v. Colorado situations. His concern, expressed to others in the region with similar concerns, led to the creation of the Compact Commission in 1922.
The question now, at the century mark, is whether the Compact actually succeeded in an equitable division among the states that prevented the ‘seven-state horserace’ – or whether the division into two basins just turned the seven-state race for appropriations into four-state and three-state races, since none of the states ever really damped down the drive for growth. (Arizona commissioner W.S. Norviel expressed that concern about the two-basin division in Compact meetings.)
The Compact did set a limit of 7.5 million acre feet (maf) for each Basin to use to depletion – but the Compact does not really present that as a limit; it is to be considered a major component of something to be worked out further as distribution from an uncommitted ‘surplus’ becomes possible. The short answer to the question would be that the Compact was very gentle, perhaps too gentle, in fitting the appropriations growth machine with brakes and steering. But the Compact is only the second (if you accept my analysis) element in the Law of the River. How does the further iteration of the Law of the River help or not help the rationalizing of the appropriation doctrine? Three elements came out in the decade following the Compact….
1928 – Boulder Canyon Project Act 1929 – California Limitation Act 1931 – California Seven-Party Agreement
The element following the Compact in the evolving Law of the River, as day follows night, was the Boulder Canyon Project Act in 1928 – the Congressional enabling legislation for the big bold strokes to control the Colorado River, teach it to stand in and push rather than cut and run. This was the first big step in the Compact’s main goal: ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.’
But the great dam was only one part of the Boulder Canyon Project. It also included the Imperial Weir Dam and Desilting Works 200 miles downriver, diverting a huge portion of the river’s water into a new ‘All-American Canal’ to move the water over to the Imperial and Coachella Valleys without having to go through Mexican territory to get there. And getting the dam under construction inspired the new Metropolitan Water District, serving the many suburbs in search of a city in the Los Angeles-San Diego area, to begin construction on a 250-mile aqueduct from the Colorado River below the big dam. In addition, every gallon of water that went through the dam passed through a hydropower turbine. And all of that was completed by the beginning of World War II – water, food and power for what was America’s fastest-growing urbanizing and industrializing region.
Possibly more important than the natural challenges overcome, however, was the coming-together of the private and public sectors, which set a standard for the 20th century. Hoover Dam was built by a consortium of modest-sized contractors (operating under the name ‘Six Companies’) who had done nothing on that scale – yet it was completed months ahead of schedule and under budget. Spearheading the project was Henry J. Kaiser, who went on to other mega-dam projects, and then to ship-building during the second World War. The private sector knew how to do things it could not afford to do with private-sector funding; the public sector, however, could amass substantial long-term funding to do things beyond the relatively quick return on investment the private sector required. This project was put together under the often maligned administration of President Herbert Hoover – and set the model for much of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal.’ So much so that Roosevelt could not tolerate naming the dam for ‘Hoover,’ and dedicated it in 1936 as ‘Boulder Dam.’
On a spectrum bounded by ‘Controlling the River’ at one end, and ‘Controlling the Growth Energy of the Appropriation Doctrine,’ the Boulder Canyon Project clearly swung far toward the former. But Congress, in the Boulder Canyon Project Act, also tried to do for the Lower Basin what the Compact Commission could not bring itself to do, and that was to set limits for the individual states. Of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 million acre-feet of water, Congress decreed that California would get 4.4 maf plus half of any designated surplus; Arizona would get 2.8 maf plus the flow of its tributaries like the Gila River; and Nevada – which did not have much going on at all in its southeastern area before dam construction began – would get 300,000 af.
The extent to which California was feared in the rest of the Colorado Basin for its fast growth and growing political power was also indicated in the Act by a legislative demand that California pass legislation limiting itself to the 4.4 maf designated in the Act. The state complied with that in 1929 – the fourth specific action in the evolving Law of the River.
But two years later, on the eve of construction beginning in the Black Canyon (not Boulder Canyon), California water user groups adopted a ‘Seven-party Agreement’ – the fifth ‘Law of the River’ element – that laid some fairly specific claims on ‘surplus water.’
‘Surplus water’ in Colorado River discussions has had three components: most of it (and the most real part of it) was Upper River Basin water that those states were not ready to use, so it flowed on to the Lower Basin, which saw no reason to not ‘borrow’ it rather than wasting it to the ocean. Another, more ephemeral ‘surplus’ component was a million or two acre-feet of water above and beyond the 15 maf divided in the Compact (plus whatever the Mexican allotment would be): the balance of BOR Director Davis’s estimated 16.8-17.5 maf average for the 20-some years of rough records, which would be allotted at some future time. A third, even more ephemeral component was water that the engineers would be ready to import into the river from some larger river, once the Colorado’s water was fully developed.
Remember: contextually we are still back at the naive beginning of the Anthropocene, when everything was still possible. Today, all three components of ‘surplus water’ in the two Colorado River Basins have disappeared – the naked facts have prevailed over the radiant colors of the early romance of engaging the river.
But in 1931 – even with a drier period emerging – a future of surplus was an article of faith, and the ‘Seven-party Agreement’ among the major California water users not only specifically defined how much of the state’s annual 4.4 maf would go to the agricultural users (3.85 maf) and to the new Metropolitan Water District for the Southern California coastal cities (550 kaf); it also got specific about another 962 kaf of surplus water: 662 kaf for the coastal cities and 300 kaf for agriculture – essentially a 10 percent ‘temporary’ expansion of their 4.4 maf allotment.
This was getting pretty specific about something so ambiguous as the ‘surplus water’ described above. But the Metropolitan Water District took it a step further: they designed and built their Colorado River aqueduct to carry not just their designated 550 kaf per year, but the ‘surplus water’ too. They were, in other words, building an aqueduct designed to carry twice their actual allotment; Southern California would grow on borrowed water.
This is why the other states – especially Arizona – were not eager to be sharing the river with California. And it also suggests that the crafters of the Compact and these subsequent LOTR measures were less interested in containing and harnessing the growth energy of the appropriations doctrine than in just grabbing the mane and running with it.
Here at the other end of the Compact’s century, we have to ask if the real underlying foundation of the Law of the River might not be some – well, law of the river itself. It might be good to articulate what law(s) a desert river abides by before inviting 40 million people to partake of it…
Meanwhile – here is an overview timeline of all the elements of the Law of the River as they unfolded over the past century (with gratitude for most of the list to the late lamented Justice Greg Hobbs). This will make no sense right now, but we will be looking more closely at most of them over the coming posts…
1860s to present – Evolution of Appropriation-based Water Law 1922 – Colorado River Compact 1928 – Boulder Canyon Project Act 1929 – California Limitation Act 1931 – California Seven-Party Agreement 1944 – United States-Republic of Mexico Water Treaty
1948 – Upper Colorado River Basin Compact 1956 – Colorado River Storage Project Act 1963 and 1964 – Arizona v. California decision and decree 1968 – Colorado River Basin Project Act 1970 – Operating Criteria for Colorado System Reservoirs 1974 – Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act 1992 – Grand Canyon Protection Act
2001 – Interim Surplus Guidelines 2003 – Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement 2003 – California Quantification Settlement Agreement 2007 – Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead 2019 – Drought Contingency Plans
Nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver sits an old concrete canal that’s been delivering water to the metro area since the 1930s.
Fast forward to 2022, and the South Boulder Canal is still performing its regular job for Denver Water.
But the canal has now taken on the added role of generating hydropower, with four small turbines spinning inside the concrete waterway and producing electricity. The turbines were connected to the local energy grid in mid-July.
“Denver Water has been producing hydropower at our dams for decades, but this is the first time we’ve generated power from one of our canals,” said Ian Oliver, source of supply director at Denver Water whose team operates the utility’s dams, reservoirs and canals.
The innovative hydropower project began in 2017 when Denver Water teamed up with Emrgy Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in creating clean, sustainable energy using the flow of water through existing infrastructure.
The South Boulder Canal is part of Denver Water’s northern delivery system, which brings water from Colorado’s West Slope to the Front Range. The 8-mile canal starts near Eldorado Canyon and ends at Ralston Reservoir north of Golden.
Denver Water typically runs water through the canal about nine months a year, with flows ranging between 50 and 300 cubic feet per second depending on time of the year and water demands in the city.
“Sustainability is part of our mission at Denver Water, so when we met the team at Emrgy and they told us about their turbines for low head applications, we knew it was something we wanted to pursue further,” Oliver said.
In 2017, Emrgy placed an initial array of turbines in the canal as part of a pilot project.
Since that time, the company has continued to innovate its design and installed four new turbines in June. The new turbines are easier to lift, handle and connect to the utility grid through the same inverters used in the solar power industry. The turbines are located at the end of the canal just before it reaches Ralston Reservoir.
The turbines look somewhat like mixers you’d see in the kitchen to stir cake batter — just a lot bigger, stronger and more advanced.
As the moving water in the canal flows past the turbines, the blades spin and produce mechanical energy, which is then converted into electrical energy. The electrical energy is then fed to a power conversion system next to the canal and delivered to the local power company’s energy grid.
“The process is unique in that it uses the kinetic energy of the flowing water and doesn’t require a large dam to build up pressure to create hydropower,” said Emily Morris, Emrgy’s CEO. “These turbines will work in any channel with moving water where energy can be extracted.”
From the original pilot study, Emrgy refined the hydro system and made the assemblies more modular, so they are easier to deliver and install. The new design also made the turbines easier to remove for maintenance, according to Morris.
Another enhancement focused on the design of the concrete flume box assembly. The flumes include curves in the concrete structure that direct moving water to pass by the rotors more efficiently.
The new turbine system is also more “plug and play,” using the same onshore power electronics equipment used by the solar industry so it’s easier to connect to the power grid, according to Morris.
Morris said each turbine can produce anywhere from five to 25 kilowatts of instantaneous power depending on the speed and depth of the water in the canal. If running 365 days a year, that would be roughly enough to power around eight U.S. homes each year.
Denver Water’s role in letting Emrgy use the canal to refine the technology has been a win-win for both organizations. For Emrgy, the pilot program helped them develop their turbines and expand them to three other states in the U.S. and into three other countries.
For Denver Water, Oliver says putting water to work to generate electricity is part of the utility’s annual goal of being a “net-zero” organization in terms of the utility’s overall energy consumption. “Net-zero” status is when the utility produces as much electricity through its hydro and solar power units as it consumes through traditional forms of energy.
With the addition of the South Boulder turbines, Denver Water now has 13 hydropower units at its facilities. The hydro program generates an average of 61,000 megawatts of electricity annually.
“Denver Water’s interest in hydropower is really multifaceted,” Oliver said. “We generate hydropower to sell to the local power grid, which helps offset the consumption of electricity at our facilities, and, by doing so, we’re also helping to meet our own sustainability goals.”
Power generated by Emrgy’s South Boulder Canal turbines is distributed to the local power grid. Denver Water receives a credit for the hydropower on its utility bill, which helps offset energy consumption at the utility’s Northwater Treatment Plant and Ralston Reservoir.
Denver Water and Emrgy are now studying the feasibility of adding six more turbines to the canal in the future to create a larger array of power generation, similar to installing a series of solar panels.
Morris said small turbines in canals help produce clean energy at the local level.
“In order to achieve a truly carbon-free future, we’re going to have to harness the power of the sun, the wind and the power of water,” Morris said. [ed. emphasis mine]
“Water is one of the only controllable natural resources that we have, and I’m excited about the ability to harvest the natural energy here to improve our environment.”
The general manager of the West Slope’s Colorado River District says proposed cuts by California entities in river water use are much less than is needed from that state, and their implication that other states need to step up with similar reductions fails to account for uncompensated, naturally occurring cuts that already impact users in the river’s Upper Basin…He was reacting to an Oct. 5 letter by officials with California water entities using Colorado River water, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Imperial Irrigation District, proposing to conserve up to an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead annually from 2023-36…
Mueller said in his memo, “California continues to take the position that it will do so only on a voluntary, temporary, compensated basis and that their participation is contingent upon the federal government paying their water users an acceptable level of compensation and the implementation of additional conservation measures from the other Basin States (including Colorado)…
Mueller and some other Colorado and Upper Basin water officials contend that while Lower Basin water users have been able to rely on water storage in Mead and Powell, Upper Basin water users are subject to varying hydrology that in some years results in users coping with cuts in use. In some years, such as 2014, water users in Colorado reduced consumption by a million acre-feet, or about 28%, Mueller says…
He says the California entities also don’t want the Bureau of Reclamation to start accounting for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Reclamation has committed to address that, but Mueller thinks it is afraid to do so out of fear of litigation from Lower Basin states. At a recent river district water seminar in Grand Junction, he contended that while everyone in the basin needs to come up with solutions for reducing usage, the evaporation/transit losses must be addressed first.
Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom the Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg):
In between the towns of Pioche and Caliente, pumps draw water from underground aquifers to irrigate crops. The water is heavy, and running those pumps depends on electricity — a lot of it.
For years, these Lincoln County farms received all of their energy from power generated miles away at Hoover Dam, which holds Lake Mead. But less water in the reservoir has meant less low-cost hydropower for rural towns, forcing them to purchase more expensive power in energy markets.
Lincoln County is not alone. Power from Hoover Dam — and other Colorado River dams — is delivered to about five million people across the Southwest. Many of the customers buying this power are small rural electric nonprofit utilities, tribal nations and local government agencies.
“Water is obviously a super important issue and deserves to be talked about,” said Dave Luttrell, general manager of Lincoln County Power District No. 1. “But sometimes I feel, as probably the most hydropower-dependent utility in the Southwest, and a small one at that, kind of the lone wolf out here saying ‘We need to pay attention to hydropower production.’”
Residents in Lincoln County and other rural communities across the state might not get their water from the Colorado River. Yet many rural communities rely on power created by the massive dams — from Wyoming to California — that hold back Colorado River water.
Many rural towns get their power from customer-owned cooperatives. Unlike investor-owned private utilities, rural co-ops operate as nonprofits and help bring energy to remote areas.
Over the past two decades, Lake Mead has dropped to historic lows amid a prolonged Colorado River drought, worsened by a warming climate. The crisis is now so severe that states across the Southwest are facing difficult negotiations over painful water cuts needed to stabilize Lake Mead, Lake Powell and an interconnected system of reservoirs along the Colorado River.
Even with Lake Mead at 28 percent capacity, Hoover Dam can physically continue to produce some hydropower. If Lincoln County is “lucky” next year, Luttrell said, it will get 60 percent of its Hoover Dam power allocation. But if the reservoir continues falling toward “dead pool” — the point at which no water can pass the dam — that slice of the pie will grow even smaller.
“Hydropower is not coming back,” Luttrell said. “The days of Lincoln County Power getting 100 percent of its need from hydropower are in the rearview mirror, and they’re never coming back.”
The immediate future, he and others said, is going to be one of less low-cost hydropower. And small rural utilities, with fewer resources than large investor-owned utilities, are looking for ways to adapt. There are solutions, but they can be expensive. And in some cases, these rural communities and tribal nations are feeling the shortage doubly hard.
With less hydropower, utilities have had to purchase more expensive power on the open market, where prices can peak to extremely high levels on hot days. Simultaneously, their contracts with the federal government, which sells the hydropower, keep them on the hook for fixed fees used to operate and maintain dams — as well as fund fish recovery programs on the Colorado River.
“You pay for what you don’t get, and you go buy more expensive stuff to replace it,” Luttrell said.
These contracts are signed with an important, if little known, federal agency: the Western Area Power Administration. The Department of Energy agency, known as WAPA, helps funnel power from the Colorado River’s dams to rural utilities and tribal communities across the West.
“The drought in the West is one of our largest concerns,” WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman said. “Each one of our projects is working with their customers to identify the best path forward.”
In Nevada, WAPA sells power to the Colorado River Commission, which in turn distributes the water to rural co-ops and other buyers. WAPA also contracts with the Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada National Security Site, and four tribal communities: the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, the Ely Shoshone Tribe, the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe and the Yomba Shoshone Tribe. But exactly where this hydropower comes from can vary, making the contracting very complicated.
Some have contracts to get their power from the Colorado River Storage Project, upstream of the Hoover Dam. The project includes Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell, a reservoir that fell below a critical threshold this summer. Others get their power from Hoover Dam. And some buy electricity from power plants at Parker and Davis dams downstream.
The terms of the contracts vary depending on where power is purchased, but in general, WAPA operates as an at-cost organization, Meiman said. About 95 percent of its funds come from the revenues generated off of power and transmission sales. That means it charges customers for expenses including operations and maintenance, investments and environmental compliance.
The structure seems to work when the water is there, even in cases where there are small shortages. Yet unprecedented water shortages on the river have strained the system, especially for customers who have generally seen an increase in hydropower rates. And it raises major questions about the future, with grim water forecasts for Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Upstream of Hoover Dam, for instance, costs for the Glen Canyon Dam and other projects are split among water and power customers. Right now, about 75 percent of the costs are borne by power users. Irrigators, for the most part, are expected to pick up the rest of the tab. But a provision in federal law says that power revenues could cover costs “beyond the irrigators’ ability to pay.” As a result, Meiman said, power revenues pay for about 90 percent of the upstream infrastructure.
Fixed costs are only one part of the equation. Less hydropower generation has a cascade of consequences. Energy experts stress that hydropower brings reliability to the grid in the West, especially when demand peaks in the summer. Power revenues have additionally helped to pay for environmental programs, including two recovery programs aimed at restoring fish species, including the humpback chub, bonytail chub, pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
For utility managers like Mendis Cooper, these impacts are hardly theoretical. Cooper, who leads Overton Power District No. 5, said most rural electric co-ops are operating without the flexibility that a big power provider might have. That means higher hydropower costs — and the need for replacement power — often have a large impact on rates, which are then passed along to rural businesses and farmers who are already operating on tight margins.
“All of us that are rural utilities are all not-for-profit,” he said. “We don’t have margins. We don’t have margins from previous years that we can carry over to make up for these types of things.”
Hydropower, Cooper said, accounts for about one-quarter of the power used by the Overton Power District, which serves the Moapa Valley, the Moapa Band of Paiutes and Mesquite. To mitigate an increase in rates, the power district can defer capital projects, but only for so long.
“Our rates keep going up and up,” he said.
The future — and what happens next — comes down to water. Cooper, who also serves as president of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, said he is watching the negotiations and efforts to stabilize Lake Mead, which sits just outside of Overton.
“We’ve seen this coming,” Cooper said of the water shortages. “We’ve seen the lake levels drop over the last 20 years. But it’s still amazing that something that big can go down that fast.”
In addition to buying replacement power on the open market, some rural electric utilities are looking for long-term alternatives to fill the gaps created by the drought. Lincoln County, for instance, has been working closely with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) to help fund a multi-phase solar project, according to Luttrell, who runs the local utility.
“We feel like we’ve got to solve this problem ourselves,” Luttrell said.
Once built, the solar project could cover about half of the power district’s customer demand. Luttrell said Lincoln County is working with rural co-ops in Arizona to source some of its power from natural gas when neither hydropower nor solar is available. Similarly, the Overton Power District recently signed a contract to install a solar plant, hoping to offset the loss in hydropower.
Still, Cooper warns: “We cannot replace that role hydropower plays on the entire grid.”
The hydropower challenge “means that these utilities have to be creative,” said Carolyn Turner, executive director of the Nevada Rural Electric Association. Efforts to bring more power online, she noted, could be aided by the Inflation Reduction Act, which allows non-taxable entities, such as local governments, schools and nonprofit utilities, to take advantage of solar energy credits.
As more rural utilities grapple with this issue, a looming question remains — what role should the federal government play in replacing lost hydropower and preparing for a drier future? By law, the only power source WAPA markets is hydropower, Meiman said.
But, she added, the agency is working closely with the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water along the Colorado River, to find long-term solutions and to make the current operations more efficient. Already, WAPA has pushed for changes to when water is released at dams, as it is more beneficial for power customers if water is released at times of peak electricity demand.
Today, Lincoln County has a population of about 4,500 residents, and farming is a key part of its economy. Bevan Lister, an irrigator, a county commissioner, and the president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, has watched Colorado River water use over the past three decades.
For farms that rely on groundwater, the electricity that drives their pumping can make up about 15 to 20 percent of the budget. The power district, Lister added, has done a good job of managing costs in the past. But he said that irrigators are looking at more expensive electricity rates next year.
Farming in Nevada, he said, “has a lot of challenges, both climate wise and cost wise. So any time those costs are increased, it challenges the viability of [farming] businesses.”
Water on the Colorado River, Lister argued, “has to be managed in a different way” to keep the reservoirs stable, and he said hydropower remains an important part of the equation.
“Hydroelectric power is extremely valuable to the agricultural industry, both in Lincoln County and across the West,” Lister said. “Dependable and cost-efficient electrical systems provide for a tremendous amount of our agricultural production in the West.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
The “power of place:” For years, renewable developers have looked to the Great Basin and Mojave Desert as prime land to site energy projects. The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada docket list is increasingly filled with notices of new developments. Many of these would go on public land, managed by the federal government. Where these projects go matters a great deal. The sprawling projects can conflict with sensitive habitats, migration corridors, recreation areas, culturally significant land and competing uses, including grazing rights and mineral claims.
Last week, The Nature Conservancy released a regional report looking at renewable project siting, and what it would take to avoid the most sensitive landscapes and ecosystems. The takeaway: It can be done, but it will require planning. The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth took a look at the report in his newsletter earlier this month and what it might mean for the energy transition.
The federal government is launching a program to pay irrigators for conserving a portion of their Colorado River water. But will prices be enough of an incentive to move the needle? More from KUNC’s Alex Hager, who writes that “the funding represents a rare infusion of federal money for a climate change-fueled crisis that is plaguing the Southwest’s water supply.”
“We end up referring them out and sending them hundreds of miles out of their way just to get care that we should be able to provide here.” That’s a quote from Serrell Smokey, the chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California in a recent story published by Kaiser Health News. Reporters Julie Appleby and Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez look at the ways in which wildfires, made worse by climate change, are affecting health care where access is limited.
Just how many mines are needed for the energy transition? That’s a question that Jael Holzman of E&E News looks at in a piece this week. This is a must-read for understanding the potential impact of the energy transition in mining-friendly jurisdictions, including Nevada.
Where the Las Vegas pipeline stands: Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Colton Lochhead and photojournalist Ellen Schmidt produced an important story about the proposed Las Vegas pipeline now that the project has been shelved — and the relief it’s brought to eastern Nevada.
The AssociatedPress‘ Scott Sonner looks at the similaritiesbetween a case involving a rare toad in Dixie Valley and a landmark Endangered Species Actcase.
The federal government plans to pay farmers that draw water from the Colorado River to take less, one piece of a multi-pronged plan to reduce usage.
The U.S. Department of the Interior announced a new program that will draw on $4 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funding approved for water management and drought mitigation in the Colorado River Basin. Called the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, it will be run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Through the program’s three components, it will select conservation proposals from Colorado River water delivery contracts and entitlement holders, typically farmers using the water to grow crops.
The first component emphasizes drought mitigation, water and power reliability, and natural resource conservation efforts that improve Lake Mead’s water level. It will allow applicants to request payback terms of $330 per acre-foot for one year, $365 per acre-foot for two years, or $400 per acre-foot for three years.
Proposals must also include amounts of water expected to be conserved, methods of verification, and an economic justification, the Bureau of Reclamation told potential applicants.
The second component will seek applicant proposals for other water conservation projects at different pricing amounts, and the third component, which will open in early 2023, will deal with long-term efficiency improvement projects.
Applications are open for the first two components now through Nov. 21, 2022.
While this announcement focuses on “near-term actions,” the Interior Department says it is still looking to invest in long-term systems that will improve efficiency. Similar programs in Upper Basin states are also under consideration and will include at least $500 million in investments in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico.
“The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “I have seen firsthand how climate change is exacerbating the drought crisis and putting pressure on the communities who live across Western landscapes.”
“Thanks to historic funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, the Interior Department is committed to using every resource available to conserve water and ensure that irrigators, Tribes and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support to build resilient communities and protect our water supplies,” she continued.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said in July that Colorado River Basin states should figure out how to conserve between 2 and 4 million more acre-feet of water by 2023
U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., advocated for the $4 billion in drought funding during the passage of the IRA.
“The Western United States is experiencing an unprecedented drought, and it is essential that we have the resources we need to support our states’ efforts to combat climate change, conserve water resources, and protect the Colorado River Basin,” they wrote in an August 5 statement. “This funding in the Inflation Reduction Act will serve as an important resource for Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, and the work we’ve done to include it will help secure the West’s water future.”
Click the link to read the guest column on The Guardian website (Greta Thunberg). Here’s an excerpt:
Governments may say they’re doing all they can to halt the climate crisis. Don’t fall for it – then we might still have time to turn things around
Maybe it is the name that is the problem. Climate change. It doesn’t sound that bad. The word “change” resonates quite pleasantly in our restless world. No matter how fortunate we are, there is always room for the appealing possibility of improvement. Then there is the “climate” part. Again, it does not sound so bad. If you live in many of the high-emitting nations of the global north, the idea of a “changing climate” could well be interpreted as the very opposite of scary and dangerous. A changing world. A warming planet. What’s not to like?
Perhaps that is partly why so many people still think of climate change as a slow, linear and even rather harmless process. But the climate is not just changing. It is destabilising. It is breaking down. The delicately balanced natural patterns and cycles that are a vital part of the systems that sustain life on Earth are being disrupted, and the consequences could be catastrophic. Because there are negative tipping points, points of no return. And we do not know exactly when we might cross them. What we do know, however, is that they are getting awfully close, even the really big ones. Transformation often starts slowly, but then it begins to accelerate.
The German oceanographer and climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf writes: “We have enough ice on Earth to raise sea levels by 65 metres – about the height of a 20-storey building – and, at the end of the last ice age, sea levels rose by 120 metres as a result of about 5C of warming.” Taken together, these figures give us a perspective on the powers we are dealing with. Sea-level rise will not remain a question of centimetres for very long.
The Greenland ice sheet is melting, as are the “doomsday glaciers” of west Antarctica. Recent reports have stated that the tipping points for these two events have already been passed. Other reports say they are imminent. That means we might already have inflicted so much built-in warming that the melting process can no longer be stopped, or that we are very close to that point. Either way, we must do everything in our power to stop the process because, once that invisible line has been crossed, there might be no going back. We can slow it down, but once the snowball has been set in motion it will just keep going…
“This is the new normal” is a phrase we often hear when the rapid changes in our daily weather patterns – wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves, floods, storms, droughts and so on – are being discussed. These weather events aren’t just increasing in frequency, they are becoming more and more extreme. The weather seems to be on steroids, and natural disasters increasingly appear less and less natural. But this is not the “new normal”. What we are seeing now is only the very beginning of a changing climate, caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Until now, Earth’s natural systems have been acting as a shock absorber, smoothing out the dramatic transformations that are taking place. But the planetary resilience that has been so vital to us will not last for ever, and the evidence seems to suggest more and more clearly that we are entering a new era of more dramatic change.
Climate change has become a crisis sooner than expected. So many of the researchers I’ve spoken to have said that they were shocked to witness how quickly it is escalating.
SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So this summer, the federal government told the states that share the Colorado River that they needed to write plans to take significantly less water due to the decade-long drought. California has now been the first to respond. How do they plan to meet this goal?
HAGER: Yeah, Southern California is proposing to cut back by about 9%. And they’re still sorting out the details of who exactly will give up how much water, but this is a deal that’s bringing together suppliers for farms and cities alike. So the four agencies involved kind of have the ability to spread out the impact of those cuts. And this announcement comes amid mounting pressure for them to use less. The federal government asked the states that share the river to conserve. And, you know, a lot of those states responded by pointing fingers at California, which uses by far the most water from the river. So now this is California’s response. They’re coming out with the first major water conservation deal since the feds asked for cuts.
SUMMERS: OK. But what are they asking for in return?
HAGER: The California group is asking for federal money to help with the Salton Sea. It’s this big, salty lake that gets filled with irrigation runoff from nearby farms. But when there’s less water heading to California, that lake dries up. And then all the salt and dust that’s left behind – it’s causing an ecological and health crisis for the area.
Click the link to read “More water restrictions likely as California pledges to cut use of Colorado River supply” on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
With the Colorado River in crisis and reservoir levels continuing to decline, some California water agencies are planning to significantly reduce the amount they take from the river starting next year. As a result, officials with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said they plan to endorse mandatory conservation measures to begin rationing water for cities and local agencies that supply 19 million people across six counties…Four water districts and the state’s Colorado River Board said in a letter to the federal government on Wednesday that they are proposing to reduce water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year. That would amount to about 9% of the state’s total water allotment from the river for the next four years, through 2026…
“California is stepping up and leading the way on addressing this situation with action and making significant reductions,” said J.B. Hamby, a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District…
Hamby said the reductions “are going to involve serious sacrifice within California, but it’s necessary in order to prevent the system from crashing.”
California water agencies have been under pressure to shoulder substantial water cutbacks. Federal officials in June called for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River to come up with plans to drastically reduce annual water diversions by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. But negotiations among the states grew tense and acrimonious, and didn’t produce a deal.
New study says that as electrical output from Colorado River dams declines benefits with a Southwest Power Pool alignment grow
For water geeks, first a bit of alphabet soup from energy geeks:
RTO stands for regional transmission organization, a way of sharing electricity across a broad region to better match demand with renewable energy supplies.
SPP stands for Southwest Power Pool, which provides some of this energy sharing across several Midwestern states. It is trying to provide something similar in Colorado and adjoining Rocky Mountain states. It began offering the first small step, something called the Western Energy Imbalance Service.
Three of Colorado’s four largest utilities have already joined, as have several others of relevance to Colorado, including the Western Area Power Administration and the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska. Conspicuously absent is the David of Colorado, i.e. Xcel Energy, which sells more than 50% of electricity consumed in the state.
Now, to the news. A new study by Brattle Group finds the benefits of joining an RTO operated by SPP would yield significantly more benefits, somewhere between $55 million and $73 million per year, depending on hydrologic conditions.
The savings increase to $89 million per year under severe drought conditions. The modeling for reduced hydroelectric production was among several differences from a similar study conducted in 2020. See the report here.
A press release from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s largest electrical supplier after Xcel, also notes potential operational and reliability benefits provided by RTO participants.
Throwing their lot with the Southwest Power Pool, at least in its incipient alignment, are not only Tri-State but also Colorado Springs Utilities and Platte River Power Authority. Not incidentally, all depend upon purchases of hydroelectricity from the Western Area Power Administration which distributes power from Glen Canyon Dam and other federal hydroelectric facilities. As a privately owned utility, Xcel is ineligible to receive what was traditionally extremely low-priced electricity from the federal dams.
The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?
On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.
Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.
Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”
The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.
They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.
Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.
“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”
By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.
To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.
Alarm has been sounded but…
Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.
The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?
A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.
At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.
“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”
Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.
“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.
That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.
After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.
By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.
At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.
At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.
Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.
They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.
Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.
Renegotiate the compact?
The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned
7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.
Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.
About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.
“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”
Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).
“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”
The feds need to step up
Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.
First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.
“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.
Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”
The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.
Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.
More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.
But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.
That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.
Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.
But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.
Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.
Technology tied into irrigation pipelines will provide power for 7,600-acre farm and Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill
The kinetic energy that irrigation water produces as it surges through pressurized pipe on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise is wasted as it is reduced to operate the center-pivot sprinkler system. Now, that precious power can be captured and used. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise decided to capture the dissipated energy through a series of small hydroelectric power plants placed on irrigation lines that serve center-pivot sprinklers on the 7,700-acre farm southwest of Towaoc.
This summer, the tribe started up its first hydroelectric generator on an irrigation line for a field prepped for winter wheat on the farm, which has 110 center pivots. Two more generators are installed on nearby field irrigation lines and are staged to begin operations. By 2024, the tribe will have 10 hydropower plants capturing the energy from the pressurized pipes, which drop in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal…
On the farm, nondescript buildings that house the turbines, piping, generators and electrical panels hum and whistle with the sounds of renewable energy. Water from the irrigation line surges into the turbine at more than 200 pounds per square inch as it drops 220 feet in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal, engineers said. The plant captures 18 kilowatts of energy from the flow but leaves enough water pressure to power the center pivot. Once all online, electricity produced from all 10 plants covers electricity costs for the farm and the adjacent Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill.
Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.
Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.
Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.
It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.
I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.
THE STATUS OF THE RESERVOIRS
Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday [September 30, 2022] with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.
Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.
Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.
Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.
If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.
For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.
2022 Water Use
Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.
So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.
I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.
But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.
So where do we go now?
Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.
Never mind about refilling.
According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.
That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?
All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.
Which leaves the federal hammer.
According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.
That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.
Interior is also:
“Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.”
“Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.”
Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.
So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.
It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.
Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.
Click the link to read the post on the InkStain website (Eric Kuhn, John Fleck, and Jack Schmidt):
With most forecasts pointing toward another below-average winter of precipitation in the Rocky Mountains in 2022/2023 and with total basin-wide reservoir storage now less than 20 maf (less than 17 months of supply at the rate water has been consumed in the basin since 2000), it is time for the federal government to announce immediate, major reductions in Lake Powell releases for the coming water year (October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023).
The importance of this leadership by Interior is pressing, because discussions among the basin states to cut their 2023 consumptive uses are at a stalemate and the Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to move the negotiation process along. An announcement by Interior, made no later than the 2022 Colorado River Water Users meeting in December, should set the annual release from Lake Powell for Water Year (WY) 2023 at approximately 5.5 million acre-feet (maf), 20% less than the 7.0 maf releases in water year 2022 and more than 30% less than the long-term release of 8.23 maf. Reductions in monthly releases to accomplish this objective ought to begin in January 2023.
In a news release Thursday, and in conversations at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River symposium this week in Santa Fe, officials with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation suggested this option is already on the table. And Lower Basin water managers, doing the math for themselves, are already bracing for the possibility. A formal announcement, soon, would thus come as no surprise.
With last year’s decision to only release 7.0 million acre-feet in WY2022 (the water year that ends on September 30), the Secretary of the Interior has already determined that she can and will take actions to protect power generation and the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam. We believe it is now time to take bold action and further reduce Lake Powell releases for the following reasons:
First – The winter forecast justifies an immediate reduction in releases. It is now clear that we’re headed for a La Nina three-peat at least through most of the winter. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, too many forecasts are pointing to a warm, dry winter for most of the Colorado River’s watershed, especially the Rocky Mountains. This warm and dry winter outlook means it’s time to focus on the likelihood that inflows to Powell will probably be similar to Reclamation’s present minimum probable forecast made in its 24-month study.
Second – The projections of the current 24-month study’s minimum probable forecast justify a drastic reduction in releases. Given the dry and warm winter forecasts, basing 2023 reservoir operations on the minimum probable forecast should be considered responsible water-supply management. Based on the latest projections made by Reclamation, storage in Lake Powell would drop to elevation 3469’, only ~2.7 maf of storage above the dead pool, and well below the 3490’ elevation below which hydroelectricity cannot be generated. Keeping the storage level above 3525 ft may not be possible, but an infusion of 2 maf of storage into Lake Powell through a combination of Drought Operations (DROA) deliveries from Flaming Gorge reservoir and reduced releases to Lake Mead would increase the probability of maintaining Lake Powell slightly above 3510 ft, a 20-ft (1 maf) cushion above minimum power pool elevation. Recognizing recent cautions from Jim Prairie (the UC Region’s lead modeler) that there may only be two years of DROA releases left in Flaming Gorge, a 500,000 af delivery combined with a 1.5-maf reduction in releases from Glen Canyon Dam would be a wise strategy that would leave Reclamation with the flexibility to make one more Flaming Gorge DROA delivery in 2024, if necessary.
Third – A 5.5-maf release would create clear markers to evaluate the impacts of the additional Lower Basin cuts on storage in Lake Mead and show what is necessary to preserve power generation at both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. Such an action would show the urgent need for additional system cuts to preserve both Lake Mead and total system storage. A reduction in the annual release by 1.5 maf would drive Lake Mead below elevation 1000 ft, but releases of only 5.5 maf would also be likely to keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool. At the end of WY2023, Lake Mead active storage would fall to 3.7 maf (~elevation 988 ft). Assuming a resumption of 7 maf-Glen Canyon Dam releases in WY2024, Lake Mead storage would drop to elevation ~965-970 ft in July 2024, close to its minimum power elevation of 950’. Under this scenario, both reservoirs would have only about a 20 ft cushion over minimum power pool elevation, but power generation at both dams would be preserved, albeit at a minimal level.
There are obvious tradeoffs between the reduction of Lake Powell releases to our suggested 5.5 maf and the imposition of additional reductions in Lower Basin consumptive uses. Reduction of Lake Powell releases to 6.0 million acre-feet in WY2023 would be the largest release that ought to be considered for the coming year, because such a release would only increase storage about 20 ft. Reducing releases to 5.5 maf or even 5 maf would be much wiser, but even these radical policies may only be enough to “tread water.” Recovering system storage is likely to take several more years of reduced releases from Lake Powell that might include additional years when annual releases are as low as 5 maf.
Fourth – If the forecast of a dry winter proves to be in error and more precipitation comes in late winter 2023, Reclamation can increase the annual release during the spring. Reclamation has the flexibility to increase annual releases back to 7.0 maf/year (or more under the possible, but unlikely, event of a big year). Ideally, if the Lower Basin has a plan in place to cut an additional 1.5-2.0 maf of its uses, the benefits of such an increase in Powell releases later in the water year could also be redirected to recovering storage in Lake Mead.
Fifth – A 5.5-maf release in WY2023 could leave the Upper Basin with a future compact deficit that would force resolution of the long-standing dispute over the Upper Basin’s 1944 Treaty obligation to Mexico. The ten-year flow at Lee Ferry for 2013-2022 will be about 85.5 maf, but under our proposed scenario of a 5.5 maf release in WY2023 and a continuation of the Millennium Drought, the ten-year total release would be less than 82.5 maf by 2025 or 2026. Further, as the 9-maf years from 2015-19 fade into the past, the running ten-year tally could stay well below 82.5 maf through the end of the decade.
Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has labeled this 82.5 maf metric as the basin’s first hydrologic “compact tripwire.” This observation is based on the Lower Division States’ view that under the 1922 Compact, the Upper Division States have an annual obligation to contribute 50% of the 1944 Treaty delivery to Mexico every year (normally 750,000 af, but a little less when Mexico takes a shortage) plus the 75 maf non-depletion obligation. The Upper Division States, of course, disagree, taking the position that the 750,000 af release for Mexico is a “luxury”, not a requirement under the 1922 Compact. Their view is that their Lee Ferry obligation is no more than 75 maf every ten years.
The Upper Division States’ position, however, puts their post-Compact uses at considerable risk! If the basins are unable to reach a compromise and turn to litigation instead and the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona, Nevada, and California or even finds a middle ground, it’s quite likely that the Upper Division States could end up owing a lot of water or money or both. The Upper Division states would be wise to consider resolving their Mexican Treaty obligation as a part of the post-2026 guidelines negotiations. Having an effective Upper Basin demand management program (or functional alternative) in place will almost certainly be a part of any negotiated settlement.
Summary If the WY 2023 runoff turns out to be below average, as many forecasts now suggest, maintaining Lake Powell storage elevation above minimum power pool with a reasonable cushion will require a combination of (1) another DROA release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and (2) a significant reduction of the WY 2023 Lake Powell release to well below 7 maf. At this point, using the most probable 24-month forecast which uses an optimistically wet (1991-2020) hydrologic baseline and totally ignores the available winter forecasts, simply obfuscates reality, and creates obstacles to finding the needed cuts. Using the minimum probable forecast to set the 2023 annual release sooner than later would add both clarity and urgency to the stalled task at hand – finding the necessary additional cuts needed to stabilize and recover the system. Using the minimum probable forecast is a “no regrets approach.” If the forecast improves, an upward adjustment of annual releases is an easy and welcome fix. The opposite, a downward adjustment made in spring 2023, would create more havoc.
There are associated issues that Reclamation ought to begin to consider immediately. What would be the impact to the Grand Canyon ecosystem of a 5.5-maf annual release? How should monthly flows be distributed under such a low annual release? How should the present invasion of smallmouth bass in Grand Canyon be managed under very low annual releases? What might be the impact on commercial river running in Grand Canyon in 2023? How should the ever-increasing temperatures of Powell releases be managed? These are all questions that need to be addressed in fall 2022 so that our recommendations can be implemented in January 2023.
We’ve suggested the 5.5 maf figure based on the September 24-month study. By November or December, the minimum probable forecast may dictate a different release number.
Whatever that number is, Reclamation should consider letting the basin know as soon as reasonably possible.
– Jack Schmidt is Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies, Center for Colorado River Studies, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University
– John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law; Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance in UNM’s Department of Economics; and former director of UNM’s Water Resources Program.
A new progress report on Colorado’s greenhouse gas emission reductions shows the state is not on track to meet key goals. And anyone could have seen it coming.
The goals are set by statute, yet state officials haven’t taken climate action with sufficient seriousness to do right by the law, let alone public health and the planet. One hopes the new report inspires urgent action, though state officials have approached the climate emergency with a maddening combination of strong rhetoric and weak action for years.
Colorado residents will pay the price.
State lawmakers three years ago enacted House Bill 19-1261, a landmark achievement that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution compared to 2005 levels by goals of 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. As part of the effort to meet those targets, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission in 2020 established a regime to track and ensure progress on emission reductions. It set targets for a handful of sectors that are to blame for the most emissions, including electricity generation, oil and gas production, transportation, and residential and commercial building energy use.
The state has since made some notable strides toward hitting the targets. State law now requires electric utilities to file clean energy plans and work to reduce emissions. While renewable energy is becoming much cheaper to produce, and market forces rather than state action has much to do with the green transition, Colorado’s last coal plant is expected to close by the beginning of 2031, and utilities in the state are expected to see a roughly 80% reduction in emissions by 2030.
In 2019, the state adopted a zero-emission vehicle standard that requires an increased percentage of cars available for sale in Colorado to be electric-powered. The modest measure, which does not require drivers to actually buy electric cars, is expected to boost from 2.6% three years ago to 6.2% in 2030 the proportion of zero-emission vehicles sold in Colorado.
Officials recently enacted standards that require state and local transportation planners to meet a series of greenhouse gas reduction targets. And during the most recent legislative session, the General Assembly enacted a package of climate-friendly measures, the largest climate investment being a $65 million grant program to help school districts buy electric buses.
But for every climate advance in Colorado there’s often a planet-threatening failure.
As Newsline’s Chase Woodruff reported last year, the administration of Gov. Jared Polis abandoned one of its own top climate-action priorities, an initiative called the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, which would have required big Denver-area businesses to reduce the number of their employees commuting in single-occupant vehicles. The initiative was dropped following “intense opposition from business groups and conservatives, many of whom spread misinformation and conspiracy theories,” Woodruff reported.
Earlier this year the administration frustrated environmentalists again when it delayed adoption of an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which would impose emissions standards on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
This is all aligns with the governor’s insistence on a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and a preference for voluntary industry action.
Is it any surprise then that the transportation sector accounts for Colorado’s most grievous instance of greenhouse gas negligence? What makes this especially troubling is that, with all those internal combustion engines buzzing around Colorado roads, transportation is the state’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Additional strategies for reducing emissions from the transportation sector will be needed” to meet state targets, the recent progress report concludes.
Emissions from transportation in Colorado have in fact grown in recent years, contributing greatly to the state’s overall off-track status.
The average temperature in Colorado keeps trending up. Denver this year experienced its third-hottest summer on record. The city’s four hottest summers have occurred in the last 10 years, and 3 of 4 of its hottest summers have occurred in the last three years.
Climate change is contributing to the aridification of the Southwest, it’s depleting water resources and it’s fueling more frequent and ferocious wildfires. It’s killing people, and it’s getting worse.
Polis, a Democrat, sits in the governor’s chair, so he shoulders the most responsibility, but Republicans would no doubt exacerbate the crisis were they in his position. Heidi Ganahl, the Republican nominee for Colorado governor, recently released her proposed transportation policy, which is almost entirely about investing in highways and almost exhaustively dismissive of climate change.
State officials, to safeguard the wellbeing of present and future generations of Coloradans, must take urgent steps to meet the 2025 emissions reduction targets. The progress report shows they’re failing to do so.
Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use.
While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.
“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved.
The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.
The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…
Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.
Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.
“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.
He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.
Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.
The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…
Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”
Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.
A federal judge in Wyoming affirmed on Friday the Biden administration’s decisions to postpone oil and gas lease sales in early 2021, holding that the federal government has broad authority to postpone sales in order to address environmental concerns.
The Wyoming court rejected across the board the arguments by industry and Wyoming, and found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acted within its legal authority under the Mineral Leasing Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other laws when it postponed lease sales in order to ensure that it fully considered the environmental harms they could cause. The court also held that industry and Wyoming lacked standing to challenge the postponement.
“We find it reassuring that the court affirmed the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to postpone oil and gas lease sales in order to make certain they adhere to the law,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The judge called out as nonsensical the state and industry group’s argument that postponing a lease to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires a NEPA analysis of its own. This suggests any appeal of this decision will have an uphill battle in court.”
“We’re pleased the Judge affirmed the Department of the Interior has significant discretion to decide when to offer public oil and gas resources at lease sales. The law requires Interior to serve the public interest by analyzing and considering the environmental and social costs of leasing before holding lease sales, and that’s what they did,” said Bob LeResche, Powder River Basin Resource Council Board member from Clearmont, Wyoming. “Last year BLM initiated a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas program, and this is the perfect time for the Department to complete their review and fully reform the federal oil and gas program to better protect taxpayers, communities, and the environment. We call on them to do so.”
In early 2021, the Biden administration issued an executive order aimed at tackling the climate crisis, which directed the Department of the Interior to temporarily pause new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore waters. The pause was meant to provide the federal government an opportunity to undertake a systematic review of its oil and gas program and consider how to address its climate impacts. Before Interior could decide how to implement the executive order, it was targeted in five lawsuits filed by industry trade associations and Republican-led states. Friday’s ruling came in two of those lawsuits, brought by the State of Wyoming, Western Energy Alliance (WEA), and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) intervened on behalf of 21 groups to defend the lease sale postponements and leasing pause.
“This ruling is a victory for people who cherish public lands, and the communities whose livelihoods are intertwined with these special places,” said Ben Tettlebaum, senior staff attorney with The Wilderness Society. “The court rightly affirmed that our public lands are not up for a fire sale to the fossil fuel industry whenever it chooses. The Interior Department has the clear authority to manage these lands for conservation, wildlife, and the health and well-being of communities who rely on them.”
The Wyoming ruling follows an August 18 ruling from the Western District of Louisiana Louisiana that permanently blocked a blanket leasing pause in thirteen states (not including Wyoming) that had sued over the executive order in Louisiana District Court. The Louisiana ruling came one day after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a preliminary injunction previously issued by the Louisiana court, finding that it lacked adequate “specificity.” Similar to the Wyoming decision, however, the August 18 Louisiana ruling appears to permit the government to postpone sales based on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other concerns.
“Given the climate crisis and its superstorms, floods, fires, and droughts, it’s essential that the President have the authority to control oil and gas leasing – or deny leasing – on mineral deposits owned by the American people,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “Friday’s ruling puts the federal government back in the driver’s seat for managing federal mineral deposits and paves the way for keeping oil and gas in the ground.”
“BLM has never adequately considered the impacts of its fossil fuel leasing program on climate,” said Peter Hart, attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “Courts across the country have found BLM’s leasing decisions illegal based on this failure. This opinion confirms that BLM doesn’t have to continue selling leases that don’t comply with law. Instead, the agency should STOP and consider the real impacts of more leasing. After that, we may all agree: ‘it isn’t worth it!’”
“The climate induced disasters keep stacking up, from mega droughts and catastrophic floods to wildfires and unhealthy air. Business as usual is not working,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The President simply must have the ability to take the time necessary to find a better path forward. People’s lives, livelihoods and communities depend on getting this right. This pause is a small step in the right direction.”
“The court reaffirmed the federal government’s long-standing obligation to protect the environment and public interest, not just sell off lands when demanded by oil and gas companies,” said Michael Freeman, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “We hope the Biden administration will exercise that authority to limit new oil and gas leasing and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”
“This welcome decision affirms that the Biden administration has wide latitude to rein in federal fossil fuels,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Allowing any new fossil fuel projects, including oil and gas leasing, is flatly incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate change. The administration still has much work to do to bring federal fossil fuel production to a swift and orderly end.”
“The law is clear, the oil and gas industry doesn’t have a right to frack public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “And given our climate crisis, it’s more critical than ever to ensure the industry is not fracking public lands.”
“This decision shows that the Department of Interior is not beholden to the fossil fuel industry, as many states and industry groups have alleged,” said Adam Carlesco, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch. “Given this understanding of its legal authority, Interior must move towards a future where public lands are protected for a variety of uses – not simply used as sacrifice zones for a polluting industry that is exacerbating our climate crisis.”
“This decision marks a step forward in ensuring our public lands are part of the climate solution, not the problem,” said Dan Ritzman, Director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Water Wildlife Campaign. “At a time when we need to be rapidly transitioning away from dirty oil and gas to meet our climate commitments and avoid the worst of the climate crisis, the last thing we need is to sell off even more of our treasured public lands to the fossil fuel industry.”
Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center represent a coalition of conservation and citizen groups in the Wyoming litigation. Earthjustice represents Conservation Colorado, Friends of the Earth, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Valley Organic Growers Association, Western Colorado Alliance, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Workshop. The Western Environmental Law Center represents Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, Earthworks, Food & Water Watch, Indian People’s Action, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and WildEarth Guardians.
Managers of districts that rely on the Colorado River have been talking about how much water they may forgo. So far, they haven’t publicly revealed how much they may commit to shore up the declining levels of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.But state and local water officials say there is widespread agreement on the need to reduce water use next year to address the shortfall. Without major reductions, the latest federal projections show growing risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell approaching “dead pool” levels, where water would no longer pass downstream through the dams. Though the states haven’t agreed on how to meet federal officials’ goal of drastically reducing the annual water take by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, the looming risks of near-empty reservoirs are prompting more talks among those who lead water agencies…
Though [Tanya] Trujillo and [Camille] Touton have stressed their interest in collaborating on solutions, they have also laid out plans that could bring additional federal leverage to bear. Their plan to reexamine and possibly redefine what constitutes “beneficial use” of water in the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — could open an avenue to a critical look at how water is used in farming areas and cities. How the government might wield that authority, or tighten requirements on water use, hasn’t been spelled out. The prospect of some type of federal intervention, though, has become one more factor pushing the states to deliver plans to take less from the river…
Because most water rights fall under state law, developing a new definition of “beneficial” would be complicated and could lead to lawsuits, Larson said. What might qualify as “waste” would also be hard to pin down, he said, because “one person’s waste is another person’s job.”
Arizona and Nevada are calling for a look at “wasteful” water use as a way of prodding large California agencies like the Imperial Irrigation District to agree to substantial cutbacks, [Rhett] Larson said. It’s an indirect way, he said, for the two states to send a message that “California, your agriculture needs to be more efficient.”
The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping…
Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years.The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell...
The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.
Click the link to access the operating plan on the USBR website.
The operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead in this August 2022 24-Month Study is pursuant to the December 2007 Record of Decision on Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Interim Guidelines), and reflects the 2022 Annual Operating Plan (AOP). Pursuant to the Interim Guidelines, the August 2021 24-Month Study projections of the January 1, 2022, system storage and reservoir water surface elevations set the operational tier for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead during 2022.
The August 2021 24-Month study projected the January 1, 2022, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,575 feet and at or above 3,525 feet and the Lake Mead elevation to be at or above 1,025 feet. Consistent with Section 6.C.1 of the Interim Guidelines the operational tier for Lake Powell in water year 2022 is the MidElevation Release Tier.
The August 2021 24-Month Study projected the January 1, 2022 Lake Mead elevation to be at or below 1,075 feet and at or above 1,050 feet. Consistent with Section 2.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, a Shortage Condition consistent with Section 2.D.1.a will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year (CY) 2022. In addition, Section III.B of Exhibit 1 to the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) Agreement will also govern the operation of Lake Mead for CY 2022.Efforts to conserve additional water in Lake Mead under a 2021 Lower Basin Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate near-term actions to maintain the water surface elevation of Lake Mead will also take place in CY 2022.
In light of the prolonged drought, low runoff conditions, and depleted storage at Lake Powell, the Department of the Interior implemented an action under Sections 6 and 7.D of the 2007 Interim Guidelines specifically reducing the Glen Canyon Dam annual releases to 7.00 maf in water year 20221. This action was undertaken in conjunction with the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan actions which together are anticipated to add approximately one million additional acre-feet of storage to Lake Powell by April 2023. The Department of Interior and Reclamation will work to determine the manner in which to operate Glen Canyon Dam to ensure the benefits of these actions are preserved.
The reduction of releases from Lake Powell from 7.48 maf to 7.00 maf in water year 2022 will result in a reduced release volume of 0.480 maf that normally would have been released from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead as part of the 7.48 maf annual release volume, consistent with routine operations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The reduction of releases from Glen Canyon Dam in water year 2022 (resulting in increased storage in Lake Powell) will not affect future operating determinations and will be accounted for “as if” this volume of water had been delivered to Lake Mead. The August 2022 24-Month Study modeled 2023 and 2024 operations at Lakes Powell and Mead as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead for operating condition purposes both for the U.S. Lower Basin and for Mexico. The elevations listed in this report reflect the projected physical elevations at each reservoir after implementing operations as described.
Using the approach described in the immediately preceding paragraph, the August 2022 24-Month Study projects the January 1, 2023, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,525 feet. Consistent with Section 6.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell’s operations in water year 2023 will be governed by the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier with an initial projected water year release volume of 7.00 maf. Because the 2022 operations were designed to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, Reclamation will implement Lower Elevation Balancing Tier operations in a way that continues to protect these critical elevations, or preserves the benefits of the 2022 operations to protect Lake Powell, in water year 2023. Specifically, Reclamation modeled operations in WY 2023 as follows in the August 24-Month Study:
• The Glen Canyon Dam annual release has initially been set to 7.00 maf, and in April 2023 Reclamation will evaluate hydrologic conditions to determine if balancing releases may be appropriate under the conditions established in the 2007 Interim Guidelines;
• Balancing releases will be limited (with a minimum of 7.00 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below elevation 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023;
• Balancing releases will take into account operational neutrality of the 0.480 maf that was retained in Lake Powell under the May 2022 action. Any Lake Powell balancing release volume will be calculated as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in WY 2022; and
• The modeling approach for WY 2023 will apply to 2024.
Consistent with the provisions of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and to preserve the benefits to Glen Canyon Dam facilities from 2022 Operations into 2023 and 2024, Reclamation will consult with the Basin States on monthly and annual operations. Reclamation will also ensure all appropriate consultation with Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, other federal agencies, water users and non-governmental organizations with respect to implementation of these monthly and annual operations.
Reclamation will continue to carefully monitor hydrologic and operational conditions and assess the need for additional responsive actions and/or changes to operations. Reclamation will continue to consult with the Basin States, Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, and other partners on Colorado River operations to consider and determine whether additional measures should be taken to further enhance the preservation of these benefits, as well as recovery protocols, including those of future protective measures for both Lakes Powell and Mead.
The August 2022 24-Month Study projects the January 1, 2023 Lake Mead elevation, determined as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in water year 2022, to be below 1,050 feet and above 1,045 feet. Consistent with Section 2.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, a Shortage Condition consistent with Section 2.D.1.b will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year 2023. In addition, Section III.B of Exhibit 1 to the Lower Basin DCP Agreement will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year 2023. Efforts to conserve additional water in Lake Mead under the 2021 MOU will also continue in CY 2023.
Current runoff projections into Lake Powell are provided by the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and are as follows.
The observed unregulated inflow into Lake Powell for the month of July was 0.491 maf or 51 percent of the 30-year average from 1991 to 2020. The August unregulated inflow forecast for Lake Powell is 0.250 maf or 66 percent of the 30-year average. The preliminary observed 2022 April through July unregulated inflow is 3.75 maf or 59 percent of average.
In this study, the calendar year 2022 diversion for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is projected to be 1.08 maf. The calendar year 2022 diversion for the Central Arizona Project (CAP) is projected to be 0.997 maf. Consumptive use for Nevada above Hoover (SNWP Use) is projected to be 0.238 maf for calendar year 2022.
Due to changing Lake Mead elevations, Hoover’s generator capacity is adjusted based on estimated effective capacity and plant availability. The estimated effective capacity is based on projected Lake Mead elevations. Unit capacity tests will be performed as the lake elevation changes. This study reflects these changes in the projections. Hoover, Davis, and Parker Dam historical gross energy figures come from PO&M reports provided by the Lower Colorado Region’s Power Office, Bureau of Reclamation, Boulder City, Nevada. Questions regarding these historical energy numbers can be directed to Colleen Dwyer at (702) 293-8420.